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Monday, October 11, 2021

SHTF Survival in the Mountains: What You Need to Know

by Tim Makay

Bugging out is a core tenant of prepping, and integral to the concept of bugging out is having in mind one or more bug out locations, places where you and your loved ones can head to in times of trouble so that you can better ride out whatever the problem is in safety, or at least relative safety compared to where you are.

Throughout history, threatened people and populations have fled into the mountains seeking a bastion against dangers big and small.

mountain during winter covered in snow

Sometimes, the mountains served as the backdrop of a valiant last stand and other times it served as a sanctuary, proof against all harm. More often, it turns out that the mountains themselves are an even bigger danger than what the refugees were originally fleeing from.

It is true that the mountains can offer protection, but they are also full of dangers, dangers that the average person, even a prepper, is ill-prepared to face.

If you ever thought about fleeing into the mountains during an SHTF event, or you are actively planning to do so presently you’ll need to know what you are up against in order to make best use of the terrain.

In this article I will tell you everything you need to know about maximizing the mountains for SHTF survival.

Heading for the Hills: Sound Practice or Fable?

There is something undeniably appealing about the mountains in a survival context. I think it is the awe-inspiring and nearly mythical sense of permanence, the idea that no matter what earth-shaking event is occurring way down yonder at the base of the slopes, the mountains will persist.

They were here long before you and I were ever formed, and they will be here long after. That impressive stature along with the entirely practical advantages afforded by the high ground places mountains high up on your list of worthwhile survival retreats.

And history proves as much: You can’t crack open any history book without seeing example after example of mountain dwelling cultures surviving times of incredible strife and mayhem while safely squirreled away in the many caverns and warrens afforded by the mountains.

Even coastal and lowland dwelling peoples would typically retreat to a mountain or mountain range to escape calamitous events. Surely, then, we should be able to do the same thing in our time of need, right?

Well yes. But actually no; it’s kind of complicated. Like all things in prepping, there is rarely ever a best option for anything. Be a piece of equipment, choice of provisions, or even the selection of a bug-out location what you’ll have is advantages and disadvantages: a trade-off.

Mountains are no different in that they will furnish you several significant advantages, but also several dangerous disadvantages, ones that could be showstoppers if you don’t know how to deal with them.

It will be terrible if you fled a bad situation only to make your own personal situation even worse because you are ill-prepared to deal with the harsh and completely merciless setting of the mountains. In the next sections we will go over those advantages and disadvantages one by one.

Mountain Living is Tough

Under any conditions, in any circumstances, mountain living is tough. It is complicated enough if you live in the mountains near properly settled and civilized society, but living in an austere mountain setting is a whole ‘nother level of difficulty.

It is most likely the latter that you will be embarked upon during an SHTF scenario, so you must be prepared.

Rough Terrain, Rough Going

The most obvious and iconic feature of the mountains is the terrain itself. Even among the gentler mountains like the Appalachians or the Smokies, you will be facing steep, broken, uneven terrain for the duration of your stay or journey.

What this means for the prepper is that every step you take is going to be far more difficult than the same step, the exact same distance, over flat land. This means you’ll be expending far more energy to do the same amount of work in the mountains.

What’s more, this rough terrain costs you twice, as it were. Just moving yourself through the mountains is tough enough, but doing it while you are loaded down with gear in the form of a bug-out bag or other carried cargo is going to make things an order of magnitude more difficult, and more tiring.

A lack of physical fitness is probably the number one way to get yourself in trouble when moving through mountainous terrain.

What’s more, it is difficult to set up a meaningful shelter on anything except firm, level ground. Trying to pitch a tent or construct a primitive hut on the side of a slope is significantly more difficult, though it can be done.

Unfortunately, firm, level ground is in generally short supply in the mountains. This means that knowing your range well is essential if you want to make a go of survival in such a place. More on that later.

Wild Weather Changes

Most mountain ranges are infamous for weather extremes, but less well known to the uninitiated is just how fast the weather can change, even when the climate and forecast is nice.

The tallest mountain ranges in colder countries will be blanketed with snow pretty much 24/7, but there are many ranges throughout the world that remain more or less pleasant in the appropriate seasons.

You might think you have hit the BOL jackpot when you retreat to the mountains in cool, pleasant springtime weather, at least during the day. But at night, you’ll be shocked and shivering to discover that the temperature can plunge by more than 50° depending on altitude and season.

Surviving in the Mountains with a Thunderstorm (36 hours)

To further complicate matters, a forecast of clear and slightly hazy skies could get tossed right out the window with the occurrence of a rapidly forming and equally rapidly departing storm or shower that can soak you and your party with cold rain and an accompanying temperature drop. That entirely too common occurrence is a great way to get hypothermia, right quick.

These extremes of weather will put you and members of your party at a more or less constant risk of exposure unless you come prepared to cover all of eventualities of weather and climate.

Knowing the typical daily and nightly temperature is only half the battle. Failing to understand how quickly the weather can change, and what those signs are, could see you caught out when you can least afford it.

Resources Can Be Scarce

Compared to other biomes you might bug out to, mountains can represent a highly variable trove of natural resources. You can either find plants and animals in abundance or shockingly scarce depending upon the range, and depending on what region of the range you are in.

Unless you were able to retreat to a completed and fully stocked structure you have pre-emplaced in the mountains, this is a big deal, as you’ll be more or less dependent upon natural resources, at least partially, for the duration of your stay.

It does hold that anywhere you can go on Earth you will find life, and where there is life you can find at least something that is useful. But hardscrabble survival, subsistence and thriving all look very different, and each rung up the ladder you go of existence you’ll require exponentially more resources, and so will everyone else in your party.

Mountain Rescue | Episode 1

It might simply be a case that where you are camped in the mountains does not have any resources useful nearby, but with a short hike down the mountain a little ways you might find a bountiful stand of trees that can provide fuel, food and building materials.

The only trouble is, moving up and down the mountain will require a considerable amount of energy, and pose a not insubstantial risk to life and limb.

Only by careful previous analysis can you make a determination on whether or not your chosen range will furnish enough resources to support you during your stay.

The Mountain is a Dangerous Place

There is no other way to put it. Mountains are dangerous places, significantly more dangerous than typical wilderness retreats like the woods, the planes or the coast. The hazards you will face on the mountain are many, and not just the weather as already mentioned.

The terrain is broken, loose and treacherous. A moment’s inattention or an ill-advised assumption on the safety and security of a foothold could see you tumbling.

If you are lucky, maybe walking away with busted shins or a sprained ankle. At worst, a bad fracture or a head-over-heels tumble down the mountainside to the sharp rocks below.

Another inherent characteristic of the mountains is a danger unto itself: their height. As you go higher and higher above sea level, the oxygen and the air that you breathe will decrease, getting thinner and thinner with increasing altitude. This puts a strain on your lungs, and further taxes your energy reserves.

Between the terrain and the thin air you could be at risk of fainting, and prolonged exposure can result in legitimate altitude sickness.

Aside from bringing bottled oxygen with you and a regulator there is not much that a prepper can do aside from spending lots of time at a given altitude in order to acclimatize- a luxury you probably cannot afford unless you live in such a place already!

Some of the most spectacular hazards present in the mountains come in the form of avalanches, mudslides and rockfalls. These torrents of natural material gather strength and increase in size as they race down slope, obliterating everything in their path.

These typically occur as a result of a large influx of precipitation in the area, but other natural or man-made events may cause them. If you or your camp is in the way of any of them, it is game over.

And if something goes wrong in the mountains, you will be stranded in more ways than one. Such places are always sparsely inhabited if they are inhabited at all, and rarely traveled besides.

This can work for or against you, but when you need help the only people you’ll be able to depend on is yourself and whoever is with you. Even in the case of the latter, they will only be able to help you if they can reach you.

man ready to hike

But Retreating to the Mountains Can Save the Day

Despite all of the risks and hazards we just covered in the preceding section, mountains do confer enormous advantages to preppers who are capable of managing or mitigating those risks. We will cover these advantages in this section.

A Mountain Redoubt is Easy to Defend

Aside from their general utility as places of safety in times of trouble, mountains have always formed easily defensible and nearly impassable barriers militarily, and they can do the same thing for you in any time of conflict.

Occupying mountainous terrain will make life very difficult for anyone who wants to attack you, and do so in a variety of ways.

First, the terrain itself can serve to defeat your opponents. The same arduous, grueling trek you had to make to get to where you are is one they will have to make themselves.

This means that your enemies are likely to be in an exhausted state when it is time to fight, giving you an edge once you have already settled in.

Furthermore, as a general rule your enemies will only be able to approach you from one of very few routes, meaning security will be significantly easier assuming you have enough people in your group to properly stay on watch.

You’ll be difficult to sneak up on and assuming someone is trying to sneak up on you, and they get caught, you are still overwhelmingly likely to have them at a position of disadvantage.

Bottom line, mountains make life very easy for defenders, and absolute hell for attackers.

Heading to the Mountains Makes You Tough to Get To

Beyond defense in a fight, the general inaccessibility of the mountains confers other advantages. Anybody who might come looking for you or try to follow you is probably going to give up well before they find you because the terrain is so inhospitable, exhausting and challenging to navigate.

This is important when you consider that, in a legitimate SHTF scenario, every unknown contact you have with strangers could potentially result in a bad encounter, and subsequently a bad outcome. It follows, then, that fewer interactions with strangers means fewer chances that you will have a bad interaction.

Think about it: you won’t have anyone that is not already part of your group (barring an unexpected member who is rendezvous with you later) coming by, and since you have made yourself so tough to get to it stands to reason and is righteous that you be naturally suspicious of anyone who does approach you.

For more optimistic preppers who only see the best in people this might not sound like much of an advantage, but any seasoned and savvy preppers who have taken the time to study their history knows that hunkering down only with the people you trust goes a long way towards getting you through a tough and uncertain time. Mountainous terrain will only help keep the riff raff away from you.

You Probably Won’t Have Many Neighbors

I already mentioned that mountains can be highly variable on the amount of natural resources they will furnish for you, and even if they are abundant with game and plants you can make use of, you will rarely find as much as you would in lower lying areas.

Lucky for you, then, that you will have very few if any neighbors who will be competing with you for the same resources. You’re likely to have them all to yourself, happily.

One common mistake that preppers make when putting together their bug-out plans is assuming that retreating into a natural and secluded environment means they will have bountiful and unfettered access to all of the resources that they might extract from the environment.

Unfortunately, you can count on dozens of other people, probably people just like you, having the same idea so long as that place is reasonably easy to get to.

That means- you guessed it- there is ample opportunity for conflict to arise over resources, especially in a life or death situation that will go on for an unknown period of time.

When someone is worried about providing shelter and food for their kids they might decide your encroachment of those same resources represents a potentially lethal threat, and act accordingly.

This has all played out innumerable times before on the stage of history and the next time will be no different.

Since mountainous terrain is so difficult to access there will be comparatively few people that will attempt to do what you are doing, and even the ones that do will most likely have their own spot picked out somewhere over yonder.

Vital Supplies for Mountain Survival

If you are even going to attempt survival in the mountains for any length of time you must, must go in with the correct gear. With terrain and weather so unforgiving being poorly prepared, or worse, completely unprepared is a veritable death sentence.

Though having the right gear is mandatory for any mountain excursion you’re still going to have a tough time of it. But the right supplies, and knowing how to properly employ them will make all the difference in the world.

Cold Weather-Rated Tent

A quality, durable and cold weather-rated tent is a vital asset for any trip into the mountains. The ability to quickly set up a shelter which can protect you from wind and provide warmth is essential.

However, mountainous terrain makes utilizing a tent tricky since the underlying ground is probably going to be uneven, unstable and rocky.

Additionally, the stereotypically high winds encountered in mountainous terrain can put the frame of any tent to a severe test, and you should not come equipped with some cheap “hobby” tent that you picked up at your local big box store.

For long duration stays in the mountains, tents might not be ideal, but they will still serve as your home away from home until such time as you can construct more permanent habitation.

Cold Weather-Rated Sleeping Bag

A good, cold weather sleeping bag is just as important as your tent for mountain survival, and in conjunction the two will serve to keep you snug and warm against positively frigid outside conditions.

Sleeping bags suitable for use in environments like this are almost always expensive and bulky, but this is one case where you truly cannot afford to go without them!

You should be intimately familiar with what kind of weather conditions you’ll be facing in your chosen mountain range, and buy a sleeping bag based upon the worst possible conditions.

Don’t forget you’ll need to carry a ground or sleeping pad with you to keep the craggy ground from ruining your periods of rest.

Walking Sticks / Trekking Poles

I have mentioned several times throughout this article how treacherous and untrustworthy the ground is while on the slopes of the mountains. Loose patches of rock, slippery boulders and tricky paths make a fall all together too likely, far more likely than it would be in almost any other environment.

Considering how bad a fall can be for you under the circumstances you must do everything you can to keep your balance, and one of the best tools to help you accomplish that is the humble walking stick.

Using a single or even two walking sticks or trekking poles in tandem will provide you additional points of contact with the ground at all times while walking.

If your feet should slip, you’ll be able to use your arms in conjunction with the stick to maintain your balance and prevent a fall. In essence, you’re turning yourself into a sort of temporary quadruped while using them!

Traditional, wooden walking sticks are definitely a fashionable choice but wood is heavy and more vulnerable to damage compared to modernized, collapsible trekking poles made out of synthetic material.

These flyweight trekking poles are sturdy, light and easy to keep close at hand when you aren’t using them making them the superior choice in most cases.

Signal Gear, multiple types

Signaling is a vital capability in mountainous terrain. Long distances, acoustic barriers, and the ever-present risk of becoming stranded or isolated means you’ll need to “power level” your signaling game. Your signal kit for SHTF survival in the mountains should include visual and auditory signals spread across multiple domains.

Large, colorful flags, tarps or even bandanas can work well in both the basic and complex modes. A whistle, air horn or even gun blast can be used for auditory signals.

Flashlights, lasers and signal mirrors can be used for getting attention across long distances or discreetly signaling when someone knows to be looking out for you.

Of course signaling is only as useful as both parties’ shared language, or code, allows. Certain signals like SOS are almost universally known whereas other codes like Morse and semaphore require both parties to be proficient in order to transmit complex information.

You don’t have to use any of these, and can come up with something entirely unique to your party involving colors, timing, position or a multitude of other factors. It just needs to work.

baofeng GT-3 handheld ham radio

Radio Communications

Keeping in contact with members of your party is always a prime consideration and a survival situation, but it is especially important in the mountains. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done since mountainous terrain provides so many impediments, as mentioned above.

Mountain ranges have a funny way of bouncing, redirecting or outright blocking radio signals, and a radio that should have a substantial range over uninterrupted or lightly obstructed distance might find its effective range drastically cut down in the mountains.

At the very least you should get a high quality set of walkie-talkies to employ with your party so you can keep in contact with each other as you go up or down slope on the same facing.

Larger and more substantial radios including potentially a base camp set can drastically improve your coordination and safety across longer distances, though you’ll need a skilled operator on both ends to minimize mishaps and maximize reliability.

Navigation Gear

No bug-out kit is complete without comprehensive maps and a reliable compass. That should be the absolute bare minimum you bring with you into the mountains, and you should also include a pre-programmed and tested GPS.

Contrary to popular belief, only the most catastrophic events will render a GPS system permanently offline, and that means you can generally rely on one as part of your SHTF navigation kit.

However, maps are particularly important for mountain dwelling preppers because good ones will allow you to plot a route over the treacherous and uneven terrain with better efficiency, ideally saving you time and energy, and potentially saving your life.

Again, more than most other environments this is a piece of kit you must know how to use prior to embarking on your journey.

You don’t want to be second-guessing yourself or learning how to read a map on the fly in the mountains: Just how steep is that slope? Is that a gentle rise or a sheer cliff? How high will we go if we follow this ridge? All of those questions need decisive answers, not wild guessing!

Thermos, extra large

An extra large thermos will serve to carry piping hot soup or beverages that you have prepared at camp and keep them that way for a very long time even in the coldest environments.

Sure, this might technically be considered a luxury, but when a hot meal or bit of hot cocoa or tea will serve as a much-needed morale boost and also warm you up a little bit we can easily file this under life support equipment.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest difference, and access to hot liquids in the frigid mountains is one such inclusion.

Again, you can save yourself a ton of grief here by picking up a quality unit that has excellent seals and high durability. The last thing you want is a leak!

strike-anywhere matches

Fire-Starting Kit

If by now you do not understand how truly hazardous the climate can be in the mountains I probably cannot offer you much more help. But chances are you do, because you are a smart cookie.

Accordingly, a comprehensive fire starting kit, above and beyond what a prepper would normally carry as part of their bob, is a vital inclusion in any mountaineering specific loadout.

This fire starting kit should include at least three fast and reliable ways to start a fire on demand. The ever-popular ferro rod is one such tool, as are a variety of outdoor specific “blast” or storm lighters.

Your third inclusion could be waterproof matches, or could be something like a chemical fire starter. The bottom line is you don’t want to be messing with a friction bow or some other primitive method when it starts to get cold; you need a fire as soon as possible!

Also, there is more to include than lighters in this kit. You should include a variety of tinders also, especially those that are hot burning. Cotton balls soaked with Vaseline are a good choice as are magnesium shavings.

When you get your fire built and kindling in place, your tinder should have the whole thing roaring hot and evenly in no time.

Tips, Procedures and Skills for Mountain Survival

Survival in the mountains entails much more than just having the right gear. You’ve got to have the know-how to go with the gear, and know how in abundance.

The following section will provide you with tips, procedures and skills that will help you survive, and possibly even thrive in your mountain home.

Know Your “Home” Range

An encyclopedic knowledge of your home mountain range is vital for preppers. There is no factoid, no bit of trivia, no bit of lore that is beneath your notice or not worth your time. You want to know everything.

You want to know the typical routes and domains of every animal and insect that lives in the region. You want to know what their habits are, what they eat, what their seasonal behaviors are.

You want to know every plant backwards and forwards. You want to know when it is in season or out of season. You want to know every sub-biome in your home range. You want to know where every old trail is, every surreptitious path, ghost town, abandoned mine and more.

All of this information could be useful in the right circumstances. The best way to get it is to do so first hand, by actually getting out there, scouting and exploring. Keep a journal of your discoveries.

The next best way is to learn from other people who have spent a considerable time in and around your home range. Talk to prospectors, recreational climbers, hikers, skiers, park rangers- anyone and everyone who can help give you a more well-rounded body of knowledge to draw from.

Supplying Adequate Shelter is Vital

Your number one priority when on the mountains is to provide adequate shelter for you and your group. Lacking proper shelter when weather turns rough or as the seasons grow colder is a death sentence. There is no in between.

You should have a thorough understanding of siting and building improvised or emergency shelters and permanent or semi-permanent habitation.

You should be able to create everything from a snow cave in a couple of hours to a passable hut or cabin in a few days worth of frenzied work. You should even know how to improve natural or man-made formations such as caves or mines to further improve your shelter.

You must have adequate shelter in place when conditions get bad, or things are going to fall apart and do so quickly.

Correctly Layer Your Clothing or Die!

In accordance with keeping warm, travel in the mountains is going to necessitate you dress appropriately. In the coldest climates or seasons you must not only have adequate clothing to beat back the chill, you must layer it correctly to regulate your temperature or face death at either extreme.

What do I mean by either extreme? Simple: It is not enough to keep warm in the coldest environments, as you must also work to keep yourself from getting too hot!

I’m not crazy; in the coldest environments if you are so warm or exerting yourself so much that you begin to sweat you will eventually soak through your clothing.

Your wet skin and clothing, when exposed to colder air, will snap chill you and ravenously drain the heat from your body, inducing hypothermia.

For this reason, you must dress in such a way that moisture is wicked away from your skin to dry quickly, and you must also be able to shuck or add layers as required to regulate your temperature.

Your inner layer should be thin, light and quick drying. This is followed by a fluffy middle layer (or two) to trap a layer of warm air against the body and finally capped off by a weatherproof outer layer to keep you dry and the whole system functioning.

As you might expect, headgear, eyewear, gloves and footwear must also be adequate to the task, and meet the same requirements. If any part of your layering system fails you’ll be in danger.

Long-Range Firearms

Few are the preppers who would consider facing an end of society scenario without arming themselves, but for preppers heading into the mountains there is only one real choice for a primary firearm. You will need a rifle, a good one, with an adequate scope on it.

More than any other environment, surviving in the mountains is likely going to present you with extremely long sight lines, and ergo extremely long range shots.

But before we get to the shooting, we must be able to see what we need to see across these vast distances and that means we need some sort of magnifying optical aid.

Only by combining a rifle with a quality optic will we be able to maximize the power, range, and accuracy that a rifle can furnish, whether we are using it to bag wild game, or protect ourselves from those who would hurt us or take what we have.

Shotguns and handguns have their place in a prepper’s arsenal but these will only be niche or special purpose weapons in a mountain environment. With weight and space in your load always at a premium, chances are both may be left behind when you head to the mountains.

fir trees on mountain

Learn to Recognize Good Routes / Spots

The one skill that is the easiest to explain is also the most difficult to master. A prepper who’s truly prepared for surviving in a mountain environment should learn to recognize which spots and routes along his line of travel will accomplish his objectives. Inversely, he should learn to recognize which ones will slow him down or put him in danger.

This is an active, ongoing and constantly refined process while moving through the mountains. A prepper should be looking five, 10, and 50 yards ahead, even further, to assess whether or not his route will remain viable and get him where he needs to go or if it will suddenly leave him stuck or stranded and force him to turn back. Saving time and saving energy is a prime consideration in the mountains.

Additionally, assessing where you are and where you are going with a “red team” perspective, or looking at it as an adversary would, will allow you to make an informed choice on which places are the most secure or concealed and which ones are the most vulnerable or exposed.

Likewise, anywhere you might think to stop for a temporary, semi-permanent or permanent camp must be assessed against a litany of hazards, including the aforementioned avalanches and rockslides.

Lest you think you are safe down off of the mountain in a valley or saddle with mature trees, consider that these places could be subject to intense flash floods in the case of heavy rain or melting snow.

As I said, this is not the easiest skill to pick up, and you can only develop it through long study and a considerable amount of experience in the mountains. But it is, nonetheless, something that you must do if you want to be truly prepared for SHTF survival in the mountains.


More than most other types, mountainous terrain can serve as an unassailable ally or a treacherous enemy, and it all depends on whether or not you are truly prepared for the rigors and challenges of short or long-term survival in such an environment.

Mountainous terrain will make short work of those who are unprepared or foolish, but that isn’t going to be you so long as you put in the time to learn what you need to learn, acquire the right gear and practice the skills you’ll need to survive in the most rugged landscapes.

mountain survival pinterest image

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